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Note on Refugee Women and International Protection

Executive Committee Meetings

Note on Refugee Women and International Protection

8 July 1985

1. It is apparent that in most circumstances men and women refugees experience the same difficulties and problems with respect to their protection. Nevertheless, there are situations in which refugee women face particular hazards due to the mere fact that they are women. The present note attempts to outline these particular protection problems.

2. One of the most important phenomena with respect to the international protection of refugee women, and by far the most heinous one, involves the violation of their physical integrity and safety. This is perhaps most graphically illustrated by the high incidence of pirate attacks against asylum-seekers on the high seas in the waters of South-East Asia which almost invariably involve the rape and abduction of women. During the last five years, some 2,500 refugee women have suffered rape by pirates, and some 1,000 women have additionally been abducted - frequently being passed among several boats to suffer inhuman abuses. Fewer than half the women abducted since 1982 have been recovered.

3. There have also been numerous instances elsewhere in the world where refugee women, in the course of their flight to safety, were subjected to sexual abuse. Even after their arrival in camps or settlements they may still continue to suffer such violations of their physical safety, including sexual exploitation, rape and prostitution. Abuse and abduction of refugee women in camps and settlements by, for example, camp guards continue to be of great concern to UNHCR field officers. It is also distressingly common for female refugees to fall victim to extortion and brutality outside such camps and settlements.

4. A second area of concern in the s here of international protection of women refugees is the realization of their right to equal treatment. In this respect, it should be recalled that the underlying philosophy of international protection is to rectify, through the application of universally-accepted legal standards, the disadvantaged situations in which refugees find themselves. These standards are defined in the international refugee instruments - the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, and the Statute of the Office of UNHCR - and are also reflected in general humanitarian principles. None of these instruments or principles makes a distinction between male and female refugees, the basic assumption being that all refugees, irrespective of their sex, face the same problems and will be treated equally. In practice, however, the effects of the international refugee instruments and of humanitarian principles may be vitiated for some refugee women because the social conditions of women in a particular society may not permit their full impact to be felt.

5. Women and young girls now constitute most of the world's refugee population. This fact alone requires that their needs and special problems be considered a major factor when formulating international action in favour of refugees. The protection of refugee women must also be considered a fundamental part of a global response to current refugee problems because situations of large-scale influx are frequently characterized by a breakdown of traditional support systems - in particular the family unit - in which the position and status of women are clearly defined. The protection afforded to women refugees by the principles of international protection may, however, not be fully applied, as noted above, because of prevailing attitudes in their countries of asylum and/or origin. Any discussion of the international protection of refugee women therefore requires an understanding of the constraints which confront women in many societies, and an awareness of the special problems which women as a particular group encounter as refugees.

6. "Refugee women" were the subject of a round table organized by the High Commissioner in April 1985. In their final declaration,, the participants in the round table, who came from different parts of the world, called for, inter alia, the collation of statistical data concerning refugee women to permit a systematic analysis of their special needs and vulnerabilities as women. This should also be seen as a basic prerequisite of more elaborate action programmes in the realm of international protection of women refugees.

7. Mention should also be made of the fact that there have been a number of cases in which women have sought asylum or refugee status pursuant to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention due to the social situation and treatment of women in their country. In this connection, the European Parliament recently adopted a resolution in which it took the view that women who face harsh or inhuman treatment because of the fact that they are considered to have transgressed the social mores of the society in which they live can be considered as belonging to a "particular social group" within the meaning of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. The European Parliament called upon States to apply the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol in this sense.1

8. In confronting the special problems faced by refugee women, a series of measures can be adopted. As regards the violation of refugee women's physical integrity and safety, such measures include the strengthening of UNHCR's presence in border areas, along flight routes and in refugee camps and settlements. Experience has shown that such a presence can have a deterrent effect. With particular regard to violation of refugee women on the high seas, the special anti-piracy programme should be fully supported and strengthened. Asylum countries should also take appropriate measures for the maintenance of law and order as well as ensure that those who violate the physical integrity and safety of refugee women are brought to justice.

9. Concerning the necessity to ensure the right of refugee women to equal treatment, there is a need for further in-depth studies to be undertaken with particular emphasis on the special needs and vulnerabilities of refugee women as women. Such studies are also required to identify particular action to be promoted by UNHCR in the realm of the international protection of women refugees.

10. Finally, as regards women who face harsh and inhuman treatment because they are considered as having transgressed the social mores of their society, consideration should be given by States to interpreting the term "membership of a particular social group", as mentioned in article 1 (A) (2) of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, to include women belonging to this category.

1 Resolution on the application of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention adopted by the European Parliament on 13 April 1984.